Mercy Corps: In Mali, Quest for Community Respect Drives Youth to Armed Groups

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As security worsens and hope for peace dims, new research investigates pathways to violence

With more than two-thirds of Mali’s 18 million people under the age of 24, youth remain the country’s biggest source of hope and possibility

In Mali, community support for armed groups and perceived government exclusion fuel youth participation in violence, according to a new report from the global organization Mercy Corps. In March 2017, Mali experienced its greatest number of violent incidents in more than four years as conflict deepens and a fragile 2015 peace agreement struggles to take hold.

“While efforts to discourage youth engagement in violence often target disenfranchised youth, we found that many young people who joined armed groups were deeply connected to their communities,” says Lisa Inks, Senior Peace and Conflict advisor at Mercy Corps and the report’s author. “We found far more evidence of community-level motivations for supporting violence than personal reasons such as poverty or religion. This was true of youth from all groups – including pro-government, anti-government and violent extremist – who sought to defend their communities.”

While many youth expressed frustration around perceived government injustices, including community exclusion, abuse and corruption, some youth interviewed see their participation in pro-government armed groups as a stepping stone for eventually joining the military. These youth cited the long-term stability and prestige of a military position.

“With more than two-thirds of Mali’s 18 million people under the age of 24, youth remain the country’s biggest source of hope and possibility,” says Inks. “They will play a critical role in deciding whether or not Mali achieves lasting peace or the current situation metastasizes into a bigger regional humanitarian crisis.”

Mercy Corps recommends that programs aiming to reduce violence in Mali center on addressing community grievances rather than targeting “at-risk” youth. Donors, the Malian government and communities should focus on helping youth move into non-violent roles that provide them with respect and status in their communities. Local governance processes must also be more inclusive and responsive to community needs in order to change perceptions of exclusion that have led communities to support armed groups.

The report, funded by Humanity United, reflects 149 interviews conducted in partnership with Think Peace between January and April 2017 in 34 cities across the regions of Gao, Mopti and Timbuktu. Interviews included youth members of armed groups, non-violent youth and community leaders.

Download the report and support Mercy Corps’ work in Mali and elsewhere in the world.

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Lynn Hector
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